(Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series with former St. Bonaventure basketball standout Michael Lee. Today: Lee reflects on his Bona career and the legacy of being on coach Mark Schmidt’s first team.)
ST. BONAVENTURE — In a way, the relationship between writer and subject has come full circle.
In August 2008, I interviewed Michael Lee about signing his first professional contract, with Cholet of the French Pro A League. It was the first story I wrote as the Times Herald’s beat writer for the St. Bonaventure basketball team. And it signified not only the end of Lee’s collegiate career but the beginning of a new, prosperous era of Bona basketball.
On Thursday, I reconnected with the former Bona standout — the most talented player of that trying mid-2000s timeframe — asking about an array of subjects, most notably his recollection of the hiring of the guy who would transform the program, Mark Schmidt, with Lee as his first building block.
These, obviously, are the last Bona-related stories I’ve written to this point.
In between, Lee made nine overseas stops in eight years, including stints in France, Serbia, Romania, Hungary and the Ukraine, before “hanging up my shoes” in 2016 at age 30. He played on the Sacramento Kings’ summer league team in 2012, went to training camp with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2013 and ran in the NBA’s G League in 2013-14 with the Canton Charge.
ALL THESE years later, however, the smooth and skilled power forward was more than happy to talk about his time in a Bona uniform.
Even after a coaching change that almost certainly helped alter the course of his career, the West Palm Beach, Fla., native won only eight games his senior season, finishing with 13 losses in his final 15 contests. He was part of just 25 victories over his entire four-year stay, one fewer than the record-setting team of 2017-18 had for the season.
And yet, the 6-foot-8 forward can say that he was part of something special.
Lee and Tyler Relph helped shift a culture and lay a foundation upon which the likes of Andrew Nicholson and Marcus Posley and Jaylen Adams and Kyle Lofton would ultimately build. He helped set a standard that teams over the next 13 years have successfully reached … and exceeded.
And though it isn’t the contribution the 2016 or ‘18 teams made, it’s still a nice legacy to have, he concurred.
“IT’S KIND of like other programs nationally,” he said. “When you’re the new guy coming in, you kind of follow the lead, the guy that set the path before you. So even though we may not have won many games, we kind of established a precedent of saying, ‘Hey, this is how it’s going to be, this is how we’re going to work.’
“Chris (Matthews) was here (sitting out as a transfer) while we were there; he wasn’t able to play, but he saw how practices were going, he saw how we were working, he saw how the process works, so when he was able to get on the court along with Andrew, that just kind of flowed over from what he saw from us. And he kind of took it to the next level.”
Lee then took a moment to consider all that Bona has accomplished since — the Atlantic 10 Tournament title and automatic bid in 2012; the regular season co-championship in 2016; the NCAA Tournament win over UCLA in 2018 — and exuded a sense of pride.
“... and I think that’s just kind of built on itself since then,” he said of that inaugural season under Schmidt. “Guys don’t want to come in and be the group that says, ‘Hey, we’re going to throw this thing off track.’ You gotta keep building off the next one.”
TRUE, the wins were few and far between.
But Lee was a legitimate stud — a guy who probably would have been a top 3-4 player for any other A-10 team at that time — albeit on bad times. Plus, coming from the Florida sunshine, he proved he could both withstand a Western New York winter and handle himself so far away from home.
“You guys take those winters a little bit serious up there,” he said with a laugh.
And, because of such things, he looks back on his time at Bona as “a great experience.”
“It definitely taught me a lot about life and being able to survive on my own, not necessarily just what happened on the court,” he maintained. “I’ve made great friendships that have lasted to this day. I was able to play against guys within the (A-10) and another teams that I got a chance to play against at the pro level.
“So my college experience was great, it just didn’t go how I would have liked it to on the court as far as the games. But you gotta try to put your best foot forward and that’s all you can really do.”
When told that it snowed here as recently as early May, he added: “See, man, I can’t mess with that.”
Lee, too, appreciates the fact that his accomplishments, and the imprint he left after removing his No. 5 jersey for the final time — in Rose Hill Gym on March 8, 2008 — didn’t go completely unnoticed.
His was one of 60 names on the program’s All-Time Team ballot from last November, a collection of names of which he was honored to be a part.
“If you look at that list, man, you’ve got some NBA players, some Hall of Famers, Bob Lanier, Essie Hollis, Andrew Nicholson, the Stith brothers,” noted Lee, who’s back in Florida and will celebrate his 34th birthday on June 5. “I got a chance to actually speak with Essie when Bona came down for the (Boca Raton Beach Classic last November).
“He’s a great dude, we had a great conversation about some of the places that I went to that he went to. It was interesting to hear about some of the great days he had when he was here. So just to be on the list, I’m really fortunate and appreciative of it … I just thought it was great.”
(J.P. Butler, Bradford Publishing Company group sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)